The highly sensitive border state of Punjab is walking on razor’s edge. Developments are underway in its political and social domains. These, besides having repercussions and reactions among the peasantry, are intertwined and add to the chaos. There is no clarity on where these things are heading and many see much deeper designs than what is visible at the surface.

One of the issues that has been dominating the religio-political matrix pertains to the cacophony around the release of ‘Bandi Singhs’ or Sikh prisoners who have been languishing in jails for crimes during the dark days of militancy, bomb blast cases and also the matter pertaining to the assassination of former Chief Minister Beant Singh.

A ‘Quami Insaf Morcha’ is underway in Mohali and has had a lot of radical speeches by the participants, and newly emerged leaders like Amritpal Singh. He has been going around Punjab playing up the ‘victim card’ among the Sikhs. Supporters market this UAE returned youth as a version of slain militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale who was killed in Operation Bluestar in 1984.

The Morcha has been organising multiple protest marches, and there have been clashes with the law enforcing agencies as well.

The demand for ‘Bandi Singhs’ release cannot be ignored in the emerging scenario, and here lies a potential trap for organisations and groups who run the risk of being discredited. In Punjab, people across the spectrum believe this demand to be genuine.

However, there is a turf war also underway. The radicals dominating the Morcha are on one side, and institutions like the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) are on the other with support coming from the farmer organisations as well.

The farmers run the threat of being discredited the most in case anything untoward happens, and they are well aware of it. That is why the majority of their organisations are moving ahead in a guarded manner.

The farmers’ organisations have been equivocal in supporting the release of the Bandi Singhs. Most of the farmers’ organisations have adopted a rational approach of broad basing this demand to include the release of all political prisoners facing wrongful incarceration across the country.

“The majority farmers feel that the demand for release of Bandi Singhs is genuine and it is their constitutional and democratic right to be released after being in prison for decades, and having completed their sentences. At the same time they feel that the incarceration and denial of human, democratic and constitutional rights does not end in Punjab alone and the demand must include the release of those imprisoned wrongfully under laws such as Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and other draconian provisions,” said Narayan Dutt of Inquilabi Kendra Punjab.

He added that the farmers while airing the demand do not want to be seen as a part of the radical stream and are making sure that they retain their independent identity.

“We are not giving up our independent stand. There is a difference in the motives of the farmers and the radicals. We know that the powers that be will not leave any opportunity to discredit the farmers at a crucial juncture like the present time when the farmers’ movement is once again building up against the centre for not fulfilling the promises made at the time of withdrawing the three controversial farm laws.

“It is well known that the movement that led to the withdrawal of these laws was led by farmers from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh with representation from other states and this time too Punjab will be the pivot of the movement,” Dutt explained.

The Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) which is the umbrella organisation of the farmer groups has announced a Mahapanchayat at Parliament on March 20 against the anti-farmer Budget and other pending issues.

These include the legal guarantee of minimum support price (MSP), procurement of all crops, loan waiver, pension for farmers and agricultural workers. They are also demanding a pro-farmer policy for insurance claims of the damaged crops, withdrawal of Electricity Amendment Bill 2022, and the dismissal of Minister of State for Home Ajay Mishra Teni from the Cabinet for his alleged role in the Lakhimpur Kheri massacre of farmers.

The farmers are unhappy at the drastic cuts in all allocations pertaining to farmers, rural development, education, health, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) and subsidy cuts in fertilisers, food security etc.

A meeting held in Kurukshetra on February 9 had finalised nine-point guidelines of the SKM. This includes the provision of setting up a 31 member National Coordination Committee for the operation of the SKM, along with rules and regulations for affiliation of various constituents with the platform and its structural composition, in order to consolidate and expand the umbrella organisation.

Coming back to the demand for release of political prisoners including Bandi Singhs, there are several organisations that have expressed support. However they have said that they will not go to the Morcha site saying that they do not subscribe to any communal or gate narrative along religious lines.

Meanwhile, the issue of Bandi Singhs is hazy. There is confusion over the exact number of such prisoners. Then there is an interpretation that many of them are actually serving life imprisonment that cannot be construed as a term imprisonment. Their release can come through a remission of sentence or pardon by the government.

It is here that those seeking the release are pointing a finger at the release of convicts of Bilkis Bano case of Gujarat that dates back to the 2002 anti Muslim pogrom that had followed the Godhra train burning incident of February 27, 2002.

At a massive demonstration led by Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Dakaunda) at Mohali on Monday, the leaders while drawing parallels with the Bilkis Bano case said that the ‘double standards’ are not acceptable.

They said that on one hand, rapists are being released and on the other Sikh prisoners who have completed their sentences, along with intellectuals, social activists, students, religious minorities, Dalits etc. are being kept in jails for years. It has been termed as “an attack on basic human rights”.

At the same time there is a consensus among the rational thinkers in the state that radicalism is being allowed to grow in the state for larger motives.

A pertinent point was raised by Prof. Jagmohan Singh while speaking at an event organised by media organisation Suhi Saver at Ludhiana on Sunday. “It needs to be understood how this Morcha came to be organised. There is an attempt to hijack the SGPC.” The SGPC chief Harjinder Singh Dhami was reportedly attacked last month at the protest site.

The demand for release of Bandi Singhs is getting political resonance as well. Congress leader Sukhpal Singh Khaira had tweeted saying, “I fully endorse the legitimate demand for release of Bandi Sikhs languishing in jails across India even after completion of their sentences.

“If the killers of Rajiv Gandhi can be released, why not them? In fact I demand release of all prisoners Hindus, Muslims etc who’ve completed sentences.”

On the other hand the beleaguered Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) continues to try to extract mileage out of the issue. It needs to be underlined here that at present this party has a stronghold over the SGPC. The two have launched a signature drive in support of the demand.

On Tuesday, the SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal requested Union Minister and Punjab Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in charge Gajendra Shekhawat “not to mislead Punjabis” with statements asserting six out of a total of nine Bandi Singhs had been released, and that there was no pendency on behalf of the Union government. Badal asserted that both claims were false.

“Shekhawat should know that a list of 22 Sikh detainees was submitted to the Prime Minister as well as the Home minister. It is also a fact that the SAD and the SGPC have been consistently pursuing the case for release of the 22 detainees. The minister’s statement has hurt the sentiments of Sikhs who are performing daily ‘ardas’ for the release of all Bandi Singhs,” he said.

Interestingly, during his visit to the Takht Damdama Sahib at Talwandi Sabo last month, the Union Minister had reportedly filled a form meant to seek release of Bandi Singhs.

Asserting that the issue of release of the Sikh detainees should not be politicised, Sukhbir requested Shekhawat to clear the status on Balwant Singh Rajoana’s mercy petition as his death sentence was commuted by the centre in 2019. He said that despite the notification issued on the 550th Parkash Purab of Guru Nanak Dev, the execution of the same was still pending.

Rajoana was convicted for the assassination of Beant Singh.

The SAD president said: “It is extremely disturbing that the release of Bandi Singhs had been stalled with the home ministry giving an adverse report to the Supreme Court which had asked the government to take a final decision on the clemency plea of Bhai Rajoana. Further, if the Tamil Nadu government can recommend the release of convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, why the same cannot be done by the centre, Delhi state and others to facilitate the release of the Sikh prisoners?” he asked.

In yet another twist, Rajoana has reportedly distanced himself from the Mohali Morcha claiming that he is and will always remain an Akali. It is pertinent to point out that the SAD had fielded his foster sister Kamaldeep Kaur as its candidate for the recently held Sangrur Parliamentary by-poll. Simranjit Singh Mann of Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) was elected from the seat held earlier by Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann. Simranjit is known for his radical stance on issues pertaining to Punjab.

Many observers feel that the Akalis stand cornered on the issue of Bandi Singhs as their stand on the Sikh prisoners has been contradictory over the years.

It is not only the issue of Sikh prisoners that has been causing ripples in the political and panthic waters of Punjab. There is also the issue of Dera Sacha Sauda head Gurmeet Ram Rahim Sigh being frequently out on parole. There were protests over his online Satsang last month.

Political parties also hit out at his frequent paroles. The Congress leadership reportedly accused the BJP led government in Haryana of trying to disturb the atmosphere in Punjab.

In a tweet party leader Sukhpal Singh Khaira said, “While in UK PM is fined for not wearing seatbelt but in India a murder and rape convict like Dera Sirsa head is allowed to hold Satsang! What lessons of ethics will a convict teach and what ethics will people learn from a criminal ? Height of blind faith by people and blindness by the government!”

But it was the Akalis who came out saying that the invitation given to the convicted rapist to attend a state level function by the Haryana government was a challenge to the judicial process.

The SAD’s Panthic Advisory Board said the manner in which top functionaries of the Haryana government were honouring Ram Rahim had sent a wrong message to civil society. “It does not behove state government functionaries like officer on special duty to Chief Minister and a BJP MP to extend invitations to a rapist and murderer for state-level functions,” it said while underlining that this practically amounted to contempt of court.

In 2007 the Dera chief was booked for blasphemy and an edict was issued from the Akal Takht against him and his sect. The case was withdrawn before the 2012 Assembly polls and the Akalis face the charge of not taking the matters to logical conclusion during this while since they were in power. The party had retained power in 2012.

To make matters worse the Dera chief was later exonerated and pardoned for the blasphemy in 2015 that led to a strong protest and subsequent withdrawal of the pardon.

Meanwhile, the religio-political matrix of the state got recently stirred further by a reported interview of Lieutenant General Kuldeep Singh Brar where he said among other things that former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had allowed Bhindranwale to become ‘Frankenstein’. He also reportedly put the number of Army casualties during Operation Bluestar at 300 to 400.

While this interview led to an expected political slugfest between the various political parties, it drew a strong reaction from Dal Khalsa that now claims to pursue its radical politics through democratic means.

Party leader Kanwar Pal Singh accused the dispensation at the Centre for its ‘malafide’ design behind the interview accusing it of playing a dirty game and rubbing the simmering wounds of the Sikh people.

Referring to itself as a ‘Pro-Freedom organisation’, it criticised General Brar’s claims that Sikh fighters held Sikh Sangat on gun point to use them as ‘human shield’.

“Moreover, General Brar’s admission has trashed the government’s white paper in which the number of casualties of army personnel was given at around 100,” the statement issued by Dal Khalsa said.

The party hit out at the attempt to portray Bhindranwale as a creation of late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and said the motive was to defame Sikh people by painting him with ‘the Congress brush’ and ‘aspirations for Khalistan with Pakistani brush’.

At another level there is tremendous unrest with regards to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) led state government failing to deliver on the issue of sacrilege of holy texts and the firing on protestors at Behbal Kalan and Kotkapura in 2015. These are emotive issues on which tempers run high.

In between there is repeated raking up of the issue of the Satluj Yamuna Link (SYL) canal. Last month it was the Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann who while reiterating that Punjab has not a drop of extra water to share with Haryana gave a new dimension to the issue.

Batting for changing the nomenclature and proposal of the project, Mann said that instead of Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal (SYL) Canal, canal, the project should be now conceived as Yamuna Sutlej Link (YSL). He said that Satluj River has already dried up and there is no question of sharing even a single drop of water from it. Rather water from Ganga and Yamuna should be supplied to Punjab through Sutlej River.

“The prevailing scenario in the state can be termed as that of Afra Tafri (chaos). No one can gauge where things are heading. Punjab is walking on a razor’s edge,” the chronicler of Punjab’s political history Vijay Bombeli told The Citizen.

He pointed that things have come to a pass where the posters about the death anniversary of freedom fighter Jagir Singh Joga who came out of the Praja Mandal movement to become the leader of one of the prominent Left Parties had the picture of slain singer Sidhu Moosewala.

It is well known that irrespective of his popularity Moosewala was always surrounded by controversy, for his songs that were known to promote gun culture.

The question raising its head is that whose interests are being served by promoting this chaos? Who stands to gain and what?